Why We Have Yet To See An Openly Gay AFL Player?


AFL Gay Footballer
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Where Are All The Gay AFL Players?

The 2021 Olympics was a huge moment for LGBTQ+ sports, with at least 186 openly LGBTQ+ athletes in attendance. This, alongside Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders’ recent announcement that he is gay, has sparked questions about AFL players who are gay or bisexual. 

While LGBTQ+ rugby fans have trailblazer Ian Roberts and former Wallabies player Dan Palmer – who just came out in 2020 in a heartfelt column – to look up to as role models, the state of LGBTQ+ representation in the AFL is rather dismal. 

In the women’s AFL, gay players make up about 15 to 20 per cent of the league. But in the AFL, the numbers on openly gay footballers aren’t quite as clear. 

RELATED: The sordid history of gender testing and the Olympic Games

Are There Any Gay AFL Footballers?

If you want to know which AFL players are gay, you’ll hit a dead-end pretty quickly. That’s because, as of 2021, there is no openly gay male player in the league. 

There are certainly a lot of gay AFL players rumours, though. Jack Vidgen of Australia’s Got Talent and I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here recently spoke with former AFL stars Robert “Dipper” DiPerdomenico and Travis Varcoe about homosexuality in the world of footy.

“I probably know about 10 or 12 footy players, I’d never say their name, that is gay but they wouldn’t come out,” said Vidgen. 

Vidgen wasn’t the first public figure to breach the topic either. Back in 2017, Joel Creasey wrote about a fling he once had with a footy player in his memoir Thirsty: Confessions of a Fame Whore. However, Creasey made it a point not to drop names or obvious hints about the player. 

“I know there’s been a push for years for an AFL player to come out of the closet”, wrote Creasey. “A player coming out would certainly help stigma, but I don’t think anyone should be forced into coming out”.

While you can probably find an unconfirmed list of gay AFL players on Reddit and other sites, to this day, there has been no official news about any of the rumoured gay AFL players. 

 

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Homophobia In Australian Sports

“[Coming out] would be a really hard thing to go through in that industry”, said Vidgen after dropping the bombshell. 

Indeed, it’s no secret that LGBTQ+ discrimination and homophobic language is rampant in sports. According to Beau Newell, Pride In Sport Australia’s program manager, 75% of Australians believe that an LGBTQ+ person would not be safe spectating at a sports event. 

We know that 87% of gay men and 75% of lesbians remain completely or partially in the closet while playing youth sport in Australia,” Newell added. “The reason for that is many fear discrimination from coaches, other players, and officials”. 

This is particularly felt in sports that are stereotyped as “tougher” and “manlier” sports, like rugby, Australian rules football, and soccer. As such, there are only a handful of openly gay athletes from these realms – each one sharing similar stories of self-hate, questioning, discrimination, and fear of losing their careers. 

 

David Kopay

Australian athlete and former NFL running back David Kopay became the first openly gay player from the NFL. He came out in 1975, three years after retiring from playing professionally. 

Before Kopay made the decision to come out, the Washington Star newspaper had written a piece about the challenges of being a queer athlete. The football player knew the piece was about former teammate Jerry Smith, with whom he had had a sexual fling. The newspaper received dozens of hate mail for the piece, with fans saying that gay people couldn’t exist in the NFL.

Enraged, Kopay sought to prove these people wrong and came out soon after. The response – which came from all over the world – was mostly positive. Over time, at least 16 other former athletes followed suit, coming out after retiring from the NFL.

But back home, gay athletes had to grapple with criminalization – up until 1984, consensual sex among male adults was illegal throughout much of Australia. Tasmania did not decriminalize gay sex until 1994. During this time, gay bashings and killings were also driving up teen suicide rates.

 

Ian Roberts

Two decades after Kopay came out, Ian Roberts became the first high-profile Aussie professional rugby player to come out as gay. 

For years prior, Roberts led a double-life, maintaining his public image of a typical hard-shelled macho rugby player in the day and spending his evenings at gay clubs in Sydney’s The Exchange. Roberts endured rumours about his sexuality for many years, as well as threats of being outed to the public. At the time, hate crimes were rampant in Sydney, leading to increasing rates of LGBTQ+ teen suicides. For some, having an out and proud role model like Roberts could be a saving grace for these teens.

It wasn’t until 1995 that Roberts decided to tell the truth about his sexuality. Like Kopay, Roberts received an outpouring of support from LGBTQ+ kids and their parents – as well as a flood of hate mail. Roberts retired two years after coming out.

Today, Roberts is active in fighting against LGBTQ+ discrimination in sports. Based on his observations, he says “nothing is changing” despite it being “a quarter-century since coming out”. 

“I’m getting very frustrated by the lack of action on this issue and all the empty promises,” the former rugby player told Reuters in an interview. 

These empty promises that Roberts is talking about are the joint commitment that the leaders of the AFL, NRL, Rugby, Football and Cricket in Australia took to become “world leaders in creating inclusive sporting cultures and eliminating homophobia in our sports”. 

However, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that, in the five peer-reviewed studies done to assess their progress, it was found that small charities like Pride Cup and Proud2Play as well as community sports clubs have been leading the charge while governing bodies have done “almost nothing beyond ‘lip service’”. 

Strikingly, “the commitments made by the leaders of the AFL and the other sports have not been kept”, writes SMH. 

 

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Discrimination Starts Young

While there is more awareness towards LGBTQ+ issues today, research has found that LGBTQ+ children and youth experience “systemic homophobic behaviours in community and school sport settings”. According to the International Olympic Committee, LGBT youth face the highest risk of both physical and psychological abuse.

As such, queer athletes may experience internalized homophobia, mental health issues, and fear that living their truths will bring abuse and discrimination from teammates, as well as career instability. 

And as adults, LGBTQ+ athletes still face a mountain of challenges – especially in Aussie rules football. In 2010, one player said that LGBTQ+ players should stay in the closet.

“Imagine the publicity associated with a current player admitting he’s gay”, he said. “It would be international news and could break the fabric of a club”.

Jason Ball

When stigma pushes people deeper into the closet, it renders LGBTQ+ athletes invisible – virtually non-existent. This lack of visibility and representation makes it even harder for LGBT people to understand and accept themselves. Thus, a vicious cycle persists.

But as NFL fans had Kopay and rugby fans had Roberts and Palmer, AFL fans can look to Jason Ball for inspiration. While not a professional footballer for the AFL, Ball is an activist and mental health advocate, former political candidate, a centre-half back for the Yarra Glen football club, and (as of 2012) an out and proud footballer. He gained media attention for coming out as the first openly gay footballer in Australia and for spearheading a campaign to screen “No To Homophobia” TV commercials at the 2012 AFL Grand Final.

In 2014, Ball hosted the first Pride Cup between the Sydney Swans and St. Kilda, wherein both ends of the 50 meter lines were painted with rainbow colours. In 2017, Ball garnered the Young Australian of the Year award for Victoria.

 

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Will There Ever Be An Openly Gay AFL Player?

While LGBTQ+ discrimination and stigma are still rampant in sports today, players like Kopay, Roberts, and Ball have let people know that LGBTQ+ athletes do exist – and they can do a good job in any sport. 

More and more local clubs, schools, charities, and even individual athletes are stepping up and speaking out about having a more accepting attitude towards the LGBTI community and LGBTQ+ players in their midst. 

With all these positive changes, we’re certain that it’s only a matter of time till we see the first AFL gay players named. 

RELATED: Australian sports bodies commit to the inclusion of trans athletes

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